At the end of her news conference following Canada’s elimination of her club, Team Great Britain women’s soccer coach thanked the assembled media – 99.9 per-cent male, including one of the nation’s foremost sports reporters, Henry Winter of the Telegraph – for their support.
Hope Powell added that it would be nice to see them again.
There will of course be no tears for Team GB from the Canadian women, who are busy preparing for Monday night’s semi-final against the U.S. at Old Trafford, the home of Manchester United, after a conclusive 2-0 win in Friday’s quarter-final in Coventry. The British were well and truly beaten by a superior team that is poised to win Canada’s first team Summer Olympics medal in a traditional team sport since 1936. A Canada win against the U.S. moves them on to the gold medal game; a loss means they’ll play either France or Japan for the bronze medal that head coach John Herdman would love to hold in the face of the Canadian Soccer Association and say: look, we’re hosting the World Cup in 2015 and the bar has been raised. We need more players. Get off your ass and do something about the sorry state of elite player development in a country where so many girls play the sport.
But the elimination of Team GB raised necessary questions: where does the women’s game go after drawing 70,000 to Wembley Stadium? Britain’s club teams are erratic in their support of women’s programs, but some of them look like Real Madrid when compared to the mess that is women’s club soccer in North America.
This much must be said about the women’s game as it has been played in the 2012 London Olympics: it has been the recipient of much praise from the sport’s opinion-makers both for the level of play and the integrity of competition. You’ll see more diving in one half of a Serie A game than we’ve seen in the entirety of this tournament. And while it is true that the Canadian women were booed loudly on Friday night for a welcomed devotion to uncompromising marking, to a person Team GB refused to cast blame on a Japanese referee that looked past an obvious foul and penalty on Canada’s Rhian Wilkinson when it might have made a difference, instead acknowledging that they’d been fairly muscled out of the game.
Now comes the acid test, because the U.S. has bossed Canada in the women’s game. Herdman rattled off Canada’s record as being “something like 4-46-5” and that was the right way to describe it: after a while, the exact numbers don’t matter much. Might as well say “something just this side of total, unequivocal mastery.” Both Christine Sinclair and Melissa Tancredi say this team has never been better positioned to beat the U.S., and Herdman upped the ante a bit by saying he hoped the legion of fans Team GB developed would now hook up with the lovable underdogs from Canada. If he’s smart, Herdman will see to it that one of his players takes the opportunity of the pre-match videos that are shown at the venues to mention that the family that owns Manchester United, the widely-despised Glazers, are Americans. Name-dropping Sir Alex Ferguson and Ryan Giggs might help sway opinion, too.
The concept of Team GB, which combines players from England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, has not been warmly embraced in the men’s game. The same does not hold true for the women’s side. Yes, there was a great deal of media criticism when a pair of women’s players failed to sing ‘God Save The Queen,’ just as Welshmen Giggs and Craig Bellamy elected not to do, but that was offset by the sense of joy that surrounded the British women. These have been family crowds, for the most part, and after the tears finished some of the British players, including Karen Carney, brought some young girls on to the pitch to share the experience.
“I talked to one of the British coaches the other day, and he was telling me the crowds they were drawing weren’t the typical British football crowd,” Herdman said. “It’s almost as if the people are there just to enjoy the football and not get caught up in intricacies.”
Perhaps that is true. Being a soccer fan in this country is torture. In some ways, it’s an emotional spin cycle all too familiar to Canadian hockey fans, who remember a time when the game seemed to be slipping away from us. The difference in England is it’s been decades and decades since the home of soccer has won anything of importance. The English national team is like the Toronto Maple Leafs: a money-making, marketing machine that feels deep down as if it’s punching below its weight even though the evidence suggests the talent just isn’t good enough. Toss in the fact that unless you follow one of the bigger clubs in the Premiership, your fan experience consists of worrying about relegation or mid-table mediocrity. Cheering for the British women’s team was so safe your daughter could do it, too.
No wonder this country wanted to embrace its soccer playing sisters and daughters. It would have been one of the best stories of an Olympics where the British seem to be able to win medals in sports they actually care about. But they’re gone, and the sport needs a new fairy-tale ending. We can think of a team capable of providing it.